The steel story: taking care of the coils

Journalist Glen Humphries and photographer Sylvia Liber pull back the steel curtain and take you deep inside BlueScope's Port Kembla steelworks.

Hot Mills Project Manager Mick McPhan stands between steel coils, showing how big they can be.

It seems as though it would be incredibly easy to misplace a coil at BlueScope’s coil processing area.

To break it down, the area is basically a great big room full of rolled-up strips of steel - each of which is coiled several hundred times - that have been delivered under the road from the nearby hot strip mill.

There are literally hundreds of them in there - 140,000 tonnes of steel - and, lets face it, one roll of steel coil pretty much looks the same as another.

And yet the guys who work there can keep track of every single coil - thanks to a computer-controlled tracking system.

Each coil that comes in gets an alpha-numeric code stamped on it - which is effectively the same as writing the customer’s name on it.

The tracking system allows the workers to keep tabs on the location of each of those hundreds of coils.

Hot Mills Project Manager Mick McPhan checks out the centre of some rolled coil.

When one needs to be moved - which happens all day long - the computer will give the crane driver the exact distance the crane needs to travel to find that coil with the help of lasers mounted at each end of the building.

As the crane moves closer, the distance counter on screen counts down until the claw is directly over the right coil.

When you’re in the crane moving over a sea of identical-looking coils, it’s pretty impressive see the computer pluck out the right one.

When the coils arrive at the centre from the strip mill, they’re still very warm - about 80 degrees.

Some of the coils are destined to remain at BlueScope, to be turned into Colorbond, so rather than having to be stored while they cool down, they’ll be loaded straight onto rail cars.

But others do have to cool down before they can be processed - that takes three days and large fans pointed at the coil rows get called in to help.

There are a range of requests customers can make for their coil.

The coils have straps that run around the outside or through the centre and customers can specify how many of each they want.

Also, some customers don’t have the ability to handle the weight of a single coil, so BlueScope will unroll it, cut it in half and turn it into two coils.

That cutting happens at the skin pass test mill, which also ensures the coils that are sent out are perfectly flat and smooth.

The processing centre is also home to a device that can stretch steel - without needing to heat it up at all.

The stretching is required to make coil plate steel that is used in manufacturing that requires intricate metal shapes to be cut.

The coil is unrolled and the machine “grabs” the steel at either end and stretches it - applying one million kilograms of force - before cutting it into smaller plates.

Operator Luke Daszkowski at the starting point where coils enter the processing area.
Some coils entering the skin pass mill, where they are uncoiled and cut into smaller coils if a customer requires it.
The robot, nicknamed BOB, that applies the final label to the finished coil.
Next Monday we visit the labs